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C Is for Citizenship: Using Literature to Teach Citizenship Concepts

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The Fourth of July is a good time to explore issues of Citizenship. And the Social Science Education Consortium has created a terrific tool -- C Is for Citizenship: Children's Literature and Civic Understanding -- for using 20 tradebooks to teach citizenship concepts across the grades. Included: A citizenship lesson based on the book Brooklyn Doesn't Rhyme by Newbery Award-winning author Joan W. Blos.

Citizenship Guide Cover Image

Each year, in the April/May issue of Social Education, the National Council for the Social Studies and the Children's Book Council presents a list of Notable Children's Tradebooks in the Field of Social Studies. That list, and assorted book reviews and bibliographies, are great resources for tradebooks that might be used to enhance social studies and citizenship teaching. Add to that list one more terrific resource: C Is for Citizenhip, written by Laurel R. Singleton and published by the Social Science Education Consortium (SSEC).

In the introduction to C Is for Citizenhip, Singleton dissects the research surrounding the use of tradebooks in the classroom. While offering that children's tradebooks can provide compelling stories, Singleton is also quick to point out the potential pitfalls of those stories. Teachers must "be vigilant about encouraging students to question the accuracy of the information presented," says Singleton.

Cautions aside, tradebooks, well used, can provide unquestionable benefits. Among those benefits:

  • Tradebooks are available for readers of all abilities.
  • A well-written tradebook can paint a vivid picture of an important event or concept.
  • Tradebooks can interest students in ways that most textbooks cannot.
  • A well-written story could motivate students to explore a topic in greater depth.
  • Tradebooks can help students comprehend and think about difficult social studies concepts.
  • Tradebooks can be used to show different perspectives and interpretations of events and ideas.
  • Teachers can use tradebooks as a starting point for meaningful classroom discussions.

In C Is for Citizenhip, Singleton presents twenty titles that can be used to teach citizenship topics. A complete lesson plan is presented for each book; each plan includes a summary of the book's content, activities to motivate interest in the book, discussion questions, and follow-up activities. The books can be used to teach multiple social studies concepts, including government; rules and laws; democratic values and principles; citizens' rights and privileges; and the importance of a citizen's participation in civic life.

A DIVERSE COLLECTION

The books Singleton has selected for this compendium run the gamut from Arthur Meets the President to The Bomb. Other titles and a brief description from C Is for Citizenhip) include:

  • Roses Are Pink, Your Feet Really Stink, by Diane deGroat, which teaches students in the younger grades about rules and values. Because he thinks Margaret and Lewis have been mean to him, Gilbert writes a mean poem on each one's Valentine and then signs the other's name. Soon, Margaret and Lewis figure out that Gilbert is responsible. When no one will play with Gilbert as recess, he regrets his actions and he and his friends are able to resolve their problem. Charmingly written and illustrated, the story demonstrates why it is important to "do the right thing."
  • A Very Important Day, by Maggie Rugg Herold, explores for young readers the concepts of rights, privileges, and civic participation. On a snowy morning in New York City, families from many countries prepare for a very important event. Not until they arrive at the courthouse downtown does the reader find out that someone in each family is becoming a naturalized citizen on that day. Pride and a sense of celebration mark this "very important day."
  • The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate, by Janice Cohn, guides young and middle-elementary students to understand the concepts of government, values, rights, and civic participation. When a rock crashes through the window of a Jewish family's home in Billings, Montana, they decide to inform people in the community about what happened. Christian ministers, community leaders, and friends of the family decide to take action to make a powerful statement against intolerance.
  • Eagle Song, by Joseph Bruchac, illustrates for middle-elementary students the concepts of government, values and principles, and civic participation. Fourth-grader Danny Bigtree feels out of place in his school, where he is the only Native American student. He hopes his classmates will stop teasing him after his father visits the class and tells the story of Aionwahta and the Iroquois League. Still, only when a family crisis prompts Danny to act does he begin to make peace with his nemesis, Tyrone.
  • Seedfolks, by Paul Fleischman, brings home to middle- and upper-elementary students the concepts of government, values, and civic participation. The voices of 13 residents of a Cleveland neighborhood describe how and why they became involved in turning an empty lot into a garden. While their reasons for becoming involved are diverse, their shared interest and activity creates a true community in a rewarding and informative story.
  • A Small Civil War, by John Neufeld, instructs students in grades 5 and up about government, principles, and civic participation. The small town of Owanka erupts in controversy when a group of parents protest inclusion of [set ITAL] The Grapes of Wrath in the tenth-grade curriculum. The controversy divides families, as eighth-grade firebrand Georgia Van Buren discovers when her father supports those who want the book removed from the schools. Georgia, meanwhile, becomes a leader in the group "Freedom Is Reading Is Freedom" and her older sister Ava struggles with whether to remain an objective reporter or to take a stand on the issue.
  • Rio Grande Stories, by Carolyn Meyer, explore for students in grades 6 and up the concepts of values and civic participation. Seventh-graders in an Albuquerque middle school are looking for a fund-raising project when they hit upon the idea of creating a book that reflects the diverse heritage of their community. As the students work on their chapters, they learn more about their own heritage, as well as the values that hold the community together. Meyer intermixes chapters about the students' lives with their contributions to the class project in a way that is entertaining and adds to the reader's understanding of the richness of this diverse community.

BROOKLYN DOESN'T RHYME

Brooklyn Doesn't Rhyme is another of the titles selected for inclusion in C Is for Citizenhip. Among the social studies/citizenship topics addressed in this book are family values, rights and privileges, and civic participation. This book might be a nice one for teachers to use at the start of a new school year, as that's the situation Rosey, the book's main character, finds herself in in the book's opening pages.

The lesson plan for Brooklyn Doesn't Rhyme is directed at teachers in grades 3 and up, but Singleton has recommended another book -- American Too by Ted Lewin -- to address similar issues for younger students. Many students might want to read both books and compare the experiences of the main characters.

Written by Newbery Award-winning author Joan W. Blos, Brooklyn Doesn't Rhyme is a powerful story about a young girl, Rosey, who worries about her latest school writing assignment. How can she write interestingly about her ordinary life in Brooklyn? As Rosey writes her stories, a vivid and heart-touching picture emerges of life in a Jewish-American community in the early years of the 20th century.

About the book, Booklist wrote: "[Rosey's] voice is gently upbeat ... evoking the warmth of the extended family that celebrates the old ways even as it eagerly tries to become part of America. Like Blos's Newbery winner, A Gathering of Days (1979), the focus is on the small events of daily life. The account of the family's move to a new house is a marvel of affectionate comedy. The story 'Momma and the Vote' personalizes history with wit and verve. There's a touching episode about two brothers who can only go to school alternate weeks because they share a pair of shoes.... As Rosey comes to realize, there's a difference between something that happens and making it a story. This is family folklore, and in fact, that's the way the book will be best used: in writing classes to encourage kids to find their own family stories, whether the immigration was many generations back or is happening right now."

SSEC has given Education World permission to reprint the Brooklyn Doesn't Rhyme lesson plan from C Is for Citizenhip. Take note that these are only excerpts of the entire lesson:

Initiating Activities

  • Read the page aloud to students the page before the first titled chapter. Discuss with the class how Rosey feels about the new school year and teacher. How does the author convey Rosey's feelings? Have students had similar feelings as a new school year was about to begin?
  • What does the author mean when she says the children of Jewish immigrants "became Americans"? Is anyone who lives in America an American, or does "being American" mean something else.
  • Tell students that as they read the story of Rosey and her family, they will be learning about some values important to her family. Explain that a value is something that a person thinks is important. Some values that many Americans think are important are equality and justice. Ask students to brainstorm some other values. Explain that they will be thinking about values that Americans share -- values that make a person a good citizen in a democracy -- as they read about Rosey's family "becoming American."

Discussion Questions

The following are among the many questions presented in C Is for Citizenhip about the book Brooklyn Doesn't Rhyme. The questions are intended to get students thinking about the citizenship values presented in the text. (Note: These questions are designed to be asked after reading specific sections of the book.)

  • What does Rosey mean when she says "Because I am part of my family, knowing my family's stories is part of knowing myself"?
  • What are some of the things that make life in America difficult for Momma? Imagine you are Rosey's mother. How would you feel about life in this new country?
  • How was Bogdana different from other Polish girls who worked for Rosey's family? What did Bogdana's story help Rosey understand about the people who come to America?
  • A saying in Rosey's family was "Jokes, not people, are for laughing at." What does this saying mean? What value does it reflect?
  • According to the Chapter "Nothing at all," what was another value that was important to Rosey's father? Do you think [that value] is a good value for citizens, as well as family members? Why or why not?
  • What does the word justice mean to you? Do you think "Justice" is a good title for the story about Yonkeleh and Herschel? Why or why not?
  • How did Rosey's mother start going to meetings about voting? Why was voting important to her? Is voting an important part of becoming an American? Explain your answer.
  • What do you now think it means to "become American"? Would becoming an American mean the same thing to all immigrants? Do people born in the United States "become American" too? Why or why not?

Follow-Up Activities

  • Have students create a bulletin board entitled "Becoming American." On the bulletin board they should display pictures, news stories, poems, and other artifacts that reflect values shared by many Americans.
  • Invite a recent immigrant to class to talk with your students. Ask the immigrant to talk about the process of "becoming American." Students whose parents or grandparents are immigrants could interview them about this process....
  • Encourage students to write stories about their own families. You might have them focus on stories that reflect values important to their families or simply write stories that are often told in their families and then analyze the stories to see if they reflect important values or beliefs.

C Is for Citizenhip

C Is for Citizenship: Children's Literature and Civic Understanding is written by Laurel Singleton and published by the Social Science Education Consortium of Boulder, Colorado. The publication is available from the Consortium at a cost of $17.95, plus shipping and handling. To order or for more information, contact SSEC Publications, P.O. Box 21270, Boulder, Colorado 80308-4270. Phone (303)492-8154.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 1998 Education World

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